Selected Poems of Cheng Hui

by John Bradley

For the White Crane Poet

          You breathe in stars.
          You breathe out the darkness

          around stars.  Nightly you ride
          the white crane far and wide

          beyond skeleton and non-skeleton.
          Beyond flying and not flying.

          “Such images are not to be
          taken literally,” critics say.

          “They’re just a metaphor.”
          As usual, the critics are right.

          But what if they aren’t?
          What if they aren’t?

Legend has it that one Master Wang rode off on a white crane to the land of the immortals, but who is the “White Crane Poet”? No one seems to know.  The fact that Cheng Hui (fl. 1210), known for his bold commentary on poets famous and infamous, would not address this poet by name leads me to think that this is not a poem by Cheng.  I include it here only because the publisher, thinking that the collection needed more poems to appear substantial, pressured me.  [Eds. Mr. Bradley must be confused.  No such stipulation was ever made.]  



Complaint of Meng Chiao’s Neglected Wife

          Me, reproach my dear, absent husband
          Or his favorite bamboo, now mottled and sickly?
          Each night before bed, I squat in the garden
          Beside his bamboo, missing him as I do.

Meng Chiao (751-814) was a close friend of Han Yu’s (768-824). Han Yu once commented on the starkness of Meng’s poetry in this way: “The bones of poetry poke at the skin of Meng Chiao.” Cheng responds to Meng’s “Complaint of a Neglected Wife,” where the wife quietly states, “My reproach is like the mottled bamboo.” Cheng apparently felt Meng often abandoned his wife while he went off with his poet friends to drink wine and gossip about the “poetry business,” as Meng called it. Cheng is not the only poet critical of Meng.  Su Shih (Su Tung-po, 1036-1101) complained about Meng’s poetry, describing it as a “cold cicada’s call.” Su Shih would don two or three heavily padded winter gowns and then sip dragon fire tea before he was able to read one of Meng’s poems.



Mei Yao-Ch’en and the Melon Girl

          The crescent moon shines.
          Your family sleeps despite
          the howling of a hungry dog.
          You slip out the back door
          and cling to shadow all the way
          along the edges of the field
          to the hut of the melon girl. 
          No wonder her teapot overflows
          with bronze coins.

In his poem “Melon Girl,” Mei Yao-Ch’en (1002-1179) says that the girl who sells melons “has handfuls of bronze money.”  Cheng Hui (fl. 1210) takes this as an accusation by Mei that she is selling more than melons, and offers a lesson on hypocrisy, though whether this was deserved we will never know. Rexroth would be harping (or “ch’ining,” as we Chinese translators like to say, punning on the term for the Chinese harp, the “ch’in”) on the sexuality in the last two lines. Mei, like his friend Ou-yang Hsiu, wrote poetry on the backs of crows, rats, earthworms, and fleas. Some critics say it was a reaction to the ornate poetry of the Late T’ang.  Or maybe they just got bored.



For Li Po [a.k.a. Li Pai], Peeping

          You peep through her window
          but that’s all right.  You only wish

          to study her face. You watch
          her remove her white stockings

          that’s all right.  You need to steal
          her gesture for a sad poem

          about a sad woman
          under a sad autumn moon.

          We’re talking here about Art. 
          You’re a Poet. Shame

          passes through you
          like cheap wine.

Tu Fu (712-770) allegedly once said of his friend: “For Li Po, it’s a hundred poems per gallon of wine.” But Cheng Hui (fl. 1210) isn’t concerned here with Li Po’s (701-762) drinking habits. He’s bothered by liberties male Chinese poets took in appropriating women’s voices, such as in Li Po’s “Jade-Staircase Grievance.” I find it rather unlikely that Li Po was a peeping tom; he was probably just looking for the lady’s wine jug. Cheng’s complaint here has merit, but Cheng is guilty of the same literary crime.  See his “Complaint of Meng Chiao’s Neglected Wife.” More likely, Cheng was jealous of Li Po’s fame.



For Li Pai [a.k.a. Li Po], Sitting Alone on Chingting Mountain

          Above the clouds, Chingting Mountain.
          Below the clouds, Chingting Mountain.
          Inside my fist, a chunk of rock.
          Inside this rock, Chingting Mountain.

Li Pai (701-762), along with Tu Fu, is considered China’s most renowned poet, though I’m not sure why.  He would often sign his poems with variations on his last name (in one instance Rihaku), no doubt due to the influence of wine, of which he was much-influenced. Chingting Mountain was indeed a mountain. It can still be found five kilometers northwest of Hsuan-cheng, exactly where it was at the time Li Po visited it and wrote his poem “Sitting Alone on Chingting Mountain.” Cheng Hiu (fl. 1210) was no doubt inspired by Li Po’s poem and perhaps by his own visit to Chingting Mountain (and sampling of the local wine?). While Cheng holds a piece of the mountain in his hand, he seems a part of it and apart from it at the same time. This theme of the outsider runs through most of his poetry.  Another translation of the last line might read—”Inside this rock, a hole in the cosmos.”